Five Ways to be a Good Neighbor in August

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Photo by Nikolaus Koumoundouros

Every month I give a shout out to five ways to be a good neighbor/better citizen/all-around-nicer person. It could be a special event, a kindness idea, or a volunteering opportunity. Check out this month’s suggestions, and chime in with your own ideas for August in the San Francisco Bay Area, or upcoming months.

1. Promote Peace: Commemorate the 68th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the 12th Annual Peace Lantern Ceremony, 6:30 to 9 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 3, at the north end of Aquatic Park in Berkeley. All ages are invited to decorate shades for the lanterns, listen to music and messages, and then participate in floating the lanterns between 8 and 9 p.m. If you’ve got time during the day, consider volunteering to set up the event.

2. Practice Forgiveness: The first Sunday of every August is International Forgiveness Day, and this year the Bay Area’s Worldwide Forgiveness Alliance is sponsoring an extraordinary event at 7 p.m., on Aug. 4, to [Read more…]

Empty Shoes Show Toll of Iraq/Afghanistan War at ‘Eyes Wide Open’ Exhibit

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eyes-wide-open-exhibit-american-friends-service-committee-king-plaza-palo-alto-photos-by-pam-marino-good-neighbor-stories Rows of empty soldier’s boots filled King Plaza in downtown Palo Alto on Saturday, March 16, to represent lives lost in the 10 years since the start of two U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the “Eyes Wide Open” Exhibit.

The site was sobering enough, but included in the exhibit were rows of civilian shoes—from casual and dress shoes of adults to small pink and white girls’ sneakers—representing the men, women and children civilians killed during those wars.

Members of the community gathered in the plaza to hear various speakers, sing songs of peace, and participate in prayers from different faith traditions, as well as walk amidst the shoes and reflect on the names of the individuals they represented.

The traveling exhibit was created by the American Friends Service Committee. The Palo Alto event was co-sponsored by the committee and numerous local peace groups, including Mutifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, the Peninsula Peace and Justice Center, and Veterans for Peace Chapter 101. [Read more…]

Helping Others Around the World Becomes Life’s Work for One Woman

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Nearly 30 years ago, Donna Baranski-Walker took a stand to change the world by helping oppressed people in far-off

Communist Poland. What she didn’t realize then was that changing the world would become the focus of her life.

From helping people living under Communist rule, to advocating for peace in times of war, to now helping rebuild communities torn apart by war, Redwood City resident Baranski-Walker has always worked in one form or another for peace.

Baranski-Walker’s first efforts were recognized August, 31, 2010, when she was awarded the Medal of Gratitude from the Euporean Solidarity Committee. Nobel Laureate and former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, presented her the medal in front of a crowd of approximately 25,000. Poland celebrated the 30thanniversary of the creation of the Solidarity Movement that week.

Baranski-Walker was 25 and a newly graduated electrical engineer when she stood up at a university lecture in Chicago and proposed forming the group Support of Solidarity (SOS) – Chicago. The group supported the Solidarity Movement during the years it was outlawed by the Communist government in Poland. The non-violent movement contributed to the collapse of Communism in Europe in 1989.

Now executive director of the Rebuilding Alliance, a San Mateo non-profit dedicated to rebuilding war-torn communities, Baranski-Walker has continued to work for peace and reconciliation throughout her life.

“I didn’t realize when I was right out of college that this would become my life’s work,” she said the day before leaving for Poland last week.

Baranski-Walker is a second-generation Polish-American who spent her junior year with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology studying in Communist Poland. She said she thought she was going to learn language and art, but instead her professors risked arrest by explaining to the foreign students why the Polish society was collapsing around them.

Soon after her studies in Poland ended, Walesa and others famously declared a strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. Leaders of the strike created the first independent union in a Soviet-bloc country, which went on to become an anti-communist, non-violent social movement of an estimated 10 million members.

In 1981, martial law was declared in Poland, and the union was outlawed. There were widespread arrests of leaders and supporters throughout Poland.

Back in Chicago, where Baranski-Walker was in her first engineering job, she was invited by a friend to a lecture at the University of Chicago about the events in Poland. Sitting around the room were doctors, engineers, professors and mathematicians. Baranski-Walker said it was a very academic conversation, but no one was talking about possible solutions.

That is until she stood up to speak. While the young woman could have been intimidated by her older, more experienced colleagues, she instead urged the group to organize in support of Solidarity.

“It really felt right,” she said of the moment. “The right people were in the room.” SOS – Chicago was born, and Baranski-Walker found herself organizing weekly meetings and raising money in her spare time. “It was just amazing to work with these people.”

The group sent funds and care packages to dissidents in Poland, they also smuggled shortwave radio communications equipment to the underground Solidarity network. In addition, the group advocated for U.S. policy change in favor of the movement, and even influenced a major world mathematicians’ conference to change the venue from Poland to elsewhere. By 1986 SOS – Chicago had more than 2,000 members.

Baranski-Walker left Chicago and the committee to earn her masters in agricultural engineering from the University of Hawaii, completing her research in Mainland China. She and her family returned to the Continental U.S., where she pursued an engineering career. Her efforts to pursue peace continued as a volunteer.

In 1990 she organized an effort to promote peace during the build-up to the first Iraq War. Using an idea from the Solidarity Movement during the Czech Velvet Revolution, Baranski-Walker encouraged people to light candles in their windows at night as a message of peace. Radio and TV news people came to her home in New Hampshire to interview her, and the New York Times published her essay, “Small Lights in the Darkness”, on Christmas Eve.

Finally, after years of what she called her “after my babies went to sleep” peace work, she left engineering in 1999 to pursue peacemaking full-time. She founded Rebuilding Alliance in 2003.

According to the organization’s website, Rebuilding Alliance is “dedicated to rebuilding war-torn communities and making them safe. Its vision is a just and enduring peace in Israel and Palestine, founded upon equal value, security, and opportunity for all.” Group organizers raise funds, organize details of rebuilding projects, advocate policy changes, and have even taken cases before the Israeli High Court. Current projects of Rebuilding Alliance include working with other organizations to build a second playground on the West Bank, helping to install lights for a soccer field in Gaza in time for a tournament, and helping to create a birthing center in a rural village.

Baranski-Walker said her work almost 30 years ago to help Poland taught her that local problems can be helped by others at a distance.

“There are models to draw upon that really make a difference in finding solutions to intractable challenges,” she said. “When people are stuck locally, that’s when the people far away have to help out.”

Young volunteers come to the Rebuilding Alliance’s San Mateo headquarters from all over the world to work as interns. And Baranski-Walker tells them from her own experience that they can accomplish big things, despite their youth.

“I have confidence they can make a difference in our work,” she said.

 

One-stop Shopping for Peace, Justice and Changing the World

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SAN MATEO, CA. – Call it a social justice/education store/community center mashup. It’s not like any other store or non-profit center around, which makes categorizing this new enterprise a little challenging – in a good way.

The for-profit educational supplies company and publisher, Reach and Teach, is teaming up with non-profit Rebuilding Alliance to share a new kind of store/non-profit combo in San Mateo, CA., called The Dove and Olive Works. The new store carries books and games that promote peace and social justice ideals. It also features an olive tasting bar and fair trade from Palestine sold by The Rebuilding Alliance, which helps rebuild communities in war-torn communities. Tucked in the back are desks and offices for the company and the non-profit.

The space is a dream realized for Reach and Teach’s founders, Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner, who started their online, self-described “peace and social justice learning company” in 2004.

“It’s a place of learning and action,” Kikuchi said of the new center. “Learning inspires action, and action causes learning. It basically puts learning and action on a two-way street.”

In addition to places for sales and offices, the new location has an outdoor courtyard where Kikuchi and Wiesner envision gatherings, performances and movie-screenings. Ultimately they hope other organizations and people from the community will come in and use the space as a place to collaborate on ideas that will change the world.

For Donna Baranski-Walker, founder and executive director of Rebuilding Alliance, the combination of ideals and products of the two groups is very complimentary.

“Having the opportunity to be in a place with a peace and social justice learning company, what a wonderful match,” she said.

It also gave both the organization and the company a chance to expand out of cramped quarters. Baranski-Walker said her organization moved out of  a 250-square-foot space where staff and interns almost sat on each other’s laps. Kikuchi and Wiesner were tripping over boxes of educational materials in their Daly City home.

From the beginning of Reach and Teach, the goal was to eventually open a brick-and-mortar store. Kikuchi said it was always meant to be a shared space, where people could not only get their hands on peace and social justice products, but could also get involved with others in action to help the world.

It’s been an interesting journey for the two men to get to this new project. The two came out of the high tech world, where they were pioneers in the arena of computer-based, long-distance, interactive education. In 1994 the men founded WK Multimedia Network Training and created the first interactive CD-ROM for the 3Com company.

In 2000, their lives began to change with a trip to El Salvador with a group from their church, First Presbyterian of Palo Alto. They went to honor a friend from the church who had started a project building wells in villages, but then died before he could see the wells completed.

Wiesner said he grew up poor, but the people of El Salvador were “truly poor.” Despite lacking money, food, and many of the conveniences we take for granted here, “they were the happiest, kindest, most generous people I had ever met in my life.”

The experience with the Salvadoran villagers deeply impressed the two men. Wiesner called it “a timer that started to tick.” Each of the men became more involved in topics they were drawn to: for Wiesner it was Israel/Palestine, and for Kikuchi it was border justice between California and Mexico.

The next year was 9/11, and within months they found themselves on another adventure visiting Afghanistan. The San Francisco group Global Exchange put together a trip of interfaith leaders to see first-hand the effects of war, and to bring together families who had lost loved ones on 9/11 with Afghani families who had lost loved ones or homes in the ensuring war. Two rabbis had bowed out of the trip on short notice, and trip organizers wanted to replace them with other Jewish leaders. Through mutual contacts, someone suggested they contact Wiesner, who is Jewish. Kikuchi, a Christian, insisted on going with him.

“It was meaningful (to go on the trip) in a couple of ways. If he was going to die, I wanted to die alongside him,” Kikuchi said. In addition, the men knew that the trip had the possibility to be a life-changing experience; as a couple they felt it was important to have that experience together (the two were married in a church ceremony 20 years ago and were married in a civil ceremony during the time same sex marriage was legal in California).

The trip turned out to be as meaningful as they expected. But the trip was only the first part of the adventure. Global Exchange requires that trip participants speak about their experiences in public for up to a year after they return. Kikuchi and Wiesner began talking at schools, libraries and other locations locally, sharing photos and first-hand accounts of what they found there.

The day before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the men spoke at a special event at Palo Alto High School. After two presentations of standing-room only attendance by students, the men had the kind of divine experience that can only lead to a major life change.

“This young man appeared out of nowhere in the parking lot and said, “I don’t know what you two do for a living, but whatever it is you should stop. This is what you need to be doing. This is how kids like me need to learn about the world,” Kikuchi  recalled. The student disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

“We looked at each other and said our lives are not going to be the same anymore,” Wiesner said.

Within a year Reach and Teach was born on the Internet. One of the products featured from the beginning was an educational card game about civil rights Kikuchi invented, called Civio. They found other educational products with a peace or social justice bent from around the world, and have even started publishing books by authors who can’t get published elsewhere.

Several years later, the two find themselves on yet another interesting leg of the journey in The Dove and Olive Works.

Kikuchi said that while organizing the store for the open house he had put together a display of books that summed up where they’ve been on the journey, and where it has brought them.

“I had put together books about traveling, seeing the world, realizing it was broken, and then discovering there were tools out there to make the repairs,” he said. The display mirrored  “our discovery, our journey, and the tools that we needed to make a difference, all in one bookcase.”

The Dove and Olive Works is located at 178 South Boulevard in San Mateo. Current hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. For more information, call 1-888-PEACE40 (732-2340), or 415-586-1713.